Friday, July 4, 2008

Target #220: The Right Stuff (1983, Philip Kaufman)

TSPDT placing: #590
Directed by: Philip Kaufman
Written by: Tom Wolfe (book), Philip Kaufman (screenplay)
Starring: Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey, Kim Stanley

In April 1959, NASA unveiled the Mercury Seven, an elite selection of fighter pilots who would become the first Americans to reach Outer space. With the Soviet Union seemingly always one step ahead in the Space Race, the US government was determined to keep up with their rival's achievements, occasionally displaying a recklessness that could easily have ended in disaster. In theory, however acute their flying skills, these astronauts were not supposed to do anything; they were expected simply to sit there, unable to observe their surroundings and incapable of controlling the movements of their space capsule – their mere presence in space was superfluous, and existed only to provide symbolic confirmation that an American had reached such a perceived milestone. For all the gruelling physical assessments in which the astronauts took part, do they really differ all that much from the test chimpanzees that preceded them? Does one possess "the right stuff" simply because they were one of the fortunate men who were chosen?

In 1979, Thomas Wolfe published "The Right Stuff," a non-fiction book exploring the beginnings of the American space programme, compiled through extensive research and interviews with test-pilots, astronauts and their wives. William Goldman initially penned a screenplay adaptation, but later distanced himself from the project after creative differences arose between himself and director Philip Kaufman, who ultimately received full writing credit. Over an epic three hours, The Right Stuff (1983) charts the United States' experiments with rocket-powered aircraft, and the attempts to break the sound barrier, and, more substantially, Project Mercury, which first placed America astronauts into space as an entire nation watched. Goldman had originally wished to excise test-pilot Chuck Yeager, on which Wolfe spends considerable time, from the film adaptation, but Kaufman knowingly recognised that Yeager's involvement solidified the story's primary theme – that "the right stuff" wasn't merely restricted to the highly-paid astronauts idolised by the media, but also included the humble high-achievers who regularly risked their lives for the thrill of the flight.

It's obvious that Kaufman believed the film's true hero to be Chuck Yeager, as well as the dozens of anonymous test pilots whose photographs once lined the wall at the Happy Bottom Riding Club. Whereas the Mercury 7 received unprecedented media attention and extensive sponsorship, sometimes without haven't even been "up" yet, the true professionals like Yeager – who was excluded from the space programme simply on the basis of their college credentials – accepted meagre wages and faced a 51% likelihood of dying on the job. Yeager's history-making 1947 flight, in which he successfully broke the sound-barrier in level flight, was treated with the utmost military secrecy, and yet, later in the film, each astronaut's return to earth is greeted by a chorus of public celebration {here, Kaufman cleverly toys with archival footage, seemingly placing his actors alongside US Presidents, in a technique predating Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump (1994)}. Of course, the astronauts themselves were still a courageous bunch, and Yeager admiringly muses that "it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that's on TV."

The Right Stuff is a massively-entertaining piece of filmmaking, supplemented by its marvellous realism and a subtle element of political satire. The high-speed aerial maneuvers, a meticulous mixture of stunt-work and scaled models, are absolutely breathless in their intensity; the subsequent space sequences then replace adrenaline with breathtaking beauty, most memorably in John Glenn's 1962 orbit of the Earth in Friendship 7, during which mysterious "fireflies" are observed dancing about his capsule. Kaufman's screenplay also has some fun at the expense of American politicians, most notably President Eisenhower and then-vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson, both of whom are portrayed almost as comical caricatures. The film's major players, a veritable melting-pot of future stars, all deliver exceptional performances, particularly Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Sam Shepard and Dennis Quaid, though considerably uneven attention is given to certain Mercury 7 astronauts over others – did Lance Henriksen, as Wally Schirra, even have any lines? A thrilling and inspirational historical drama, The Right Stuff hardly puts a foot wrong, and is a film very worthy of its out-of-this-world subject matter.

Currently my #1 film of 1983:
1) The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman)
2) Star Wars: Episode VI- The Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand)
3) Scarface (Brian De Palma)
4) The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg)
5) The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)

56th Academy Awards, 1984:
* Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing - Jay Boekelheide (win)
* Best Film Editing - Glenn Farr, Lisa Fruchtman, Stephen A. Rotter, Douglas Stewart, Tom Rolf (win)
* Best Music, Original Score - Bill Conti (win)
* Best Sound - Mark Berger, Thomas Scott, Randy Thom, David MacMillan (win)
* Best Picture - Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff (nomination)
* Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Sam Shepard (nomination)
* Best Art Direction-Set Decoration - Geoffrey Kirkland, Richard Lawrence, W. Stewart Campbell, Peter R. Romero, Jim Poynter, George R. Nelson (nomination)
* Best Cinematography - Caleb Deschanel (nomination)

What others have said:

"There was a lot going on, and there's a lot going on in the movie, too. The Right Stuff is an adventure film, a special effects film, a social commentary and a satire. That the writer-director, Philip Kaufman, is able to get so much into a little more than three hours is impressive. That he also has organized this material into one of the best recent American movies is astonishing. The Right Stuff gives itself the freedom to move around in moods and styles, from a broadly based lampoon of government functionaries to Yeager's spare, taciturn manner and Glenn's wonderment at the sights outside his capsule window."
Roger Ebert, October 21, 1983

"The Right Stuff is a film about victory, glory, and triumph in the face of the most disastrous of defeats. It is of course an invaluable history lesson about the space program, buttressed in popular culture only by Apollo 13 and the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. The Right Stuff takes us through the lows of the Mercury program... to the highs -- truly capturing the conflicting emotions when we finally made it into space... The film lacks the grace and polish of its contemporaries: Thus director Philip Kaufman is forced to make do with archival footage and focus on his characters instead of lavish effects. At three hours long, it's one of the fastest-paced epics ever made."
Christopher Null, 2003

Also recommended:

* Apollo 13 (1995, Ron Howard)
"To enjoy Apollo 13, you have to embrace details, lots of them, some routine, some fascinating, about the space program and its personnel. The film is structured as a classic adventure, with the astronauts as explorers who heroically are forced to withstand bizarre physical humiliations. For better or worse, Howard takes a decidedly straight approach, telling the story in linear way, and assuming that a mission that almost ended in disaster is dramatic enough; he doesn't pump up the events or the characters."
Emanuel Levy

* The Dish (2000, Rob Sitch)
"Since we all know Neil Armstrong and his shipmates returned safely from the moon, The Dish can't develop suspense over the outcome of the mission. But it's a cliffhanger, anyway, through the ingenious device of making the movie more about Parkes than about the moon. The movie is "inspired by fact" (loosely, I suspect), but who can remember if the historic TV signals were relayed by Parkes or Goldstone? Since we've met the locals in Parkes, we're as eager as they are to have it be them. The Dish has affection for every one of its characters, forgives them their trespasses, understands their ambitions, doesn't mock them and is very funny."
Roger Ebert, 2001

* In The Shadow of the Moon (2007, David Sington)
"All in all, ten of the twenty-four astronauts who orbited or landed on the Moon provide interviews for the film, with six of the remaining number having already passed away. Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins supply the framework for the all-important Apollo 11 landing... Having been involved in one of the most ambitious endeavours in the United States' history, these astronauts have an extraordinary story to tell, and, despite the vividness with which the film recounts their experiences, one can never really achieve a complete sense of what it was really like. However, the astonishing archive footage, some newly-released from the NASA archives, has been meticulously restored in HD, and I venture that this is about as close to space as most of us will ever get."


tosser/ressot said...

I have this one on DVD. Maybe I should give it a whirl...

ackatsis said...

It's well worth a look. If you've got a projector or a big-screen TV, give it a whirl on that. Also make sure you're getting good audio, because the sound design is terrific!